Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of 17-year-old Autumn. Living with her family in Pennsylvania, Autumn suspects she is pregnant.
The film begins at Autumn’s school – appearing in a talent show, Autumn (played by Sidney Flanigan) sings and plays the guitar. She is the typical outsider – too different to be read clearly by her classmates. They jeer as she plays. After finishing the show, she takes off her costume. A gently bulging belly is exposed.
Working at a local supermarket with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn’s symptoms begin to accumulate. She decides to visit her local family planning clinic to get tested. The doctor at the clinic offers the teenager a home-testing kit – something she could have picked up herself. The test indicates a positive result. Autumn asks if there could be any chance of error. No, says the doctor. Positive always means positive.
Confiding in Skylar, the two friends make a plan to travel to New York. Abortions for under 18’s are not available in Autumn’s home state, not without parental permission. Having a difficult relationship with her father in particular, Autumn’s options are limited. New York offers abortions without the need for parents’ consent. The girls gather together the money to travel to the city by coach. A difficult and uncomfortable journey, Skylar catches the eye of fellow passenger, Jasper (Theodore Pellerin). He is also travelling to New York, and offers the girls a chance to attend a concert. They are travelling to meet up with family, Skylar tells him. Jasper, not getting the hint, presses Skylar for her phone number.
Originally inspired by news stories of women struggling to seek abortion care in Ireland – Hittman transferred the narrative of Never Rarely Sometimes Always to the United States. The geographical shift meant the film could then explore the difficulties of navigating a two-tier healthcare system. On arriving in New York for her appointment, Autumn has health insurance, but the abortion would appear on her parent’s statement. To safeguard her privacy, she has no choice but to pay in cash.
The film plays out against a political backdrop where accessibility to healthcare not only varies state to state, but a recent change in the law has meant that medical institutions in receipt of ‘Title X’ funding cannot refer patients for abortions (unless they are required for cases of rape, incest or medical emergency). This will mean increased costs and longer wait times for patients. Trump’s administration has been criticised by Planned Parenthood for interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. It is this pressure point – the personal being made political – that the film hinges on. With healthcare access being eroded further by the current administration, Autumn’s journey, implies Hittman, is not just one of many. It is just the beginning of more inconsistency and indignity heaped on individuals at their most vulnerable.
It is the prolonging of Autumn’s ordeal that feels particularly cruel. She and Skylar arrive in New York, and the clinic they visit re-does her pregnancy test. It is standard practice. What they find is that the earlier pregnancy test (done back in Pennsylvania) was inaccurate by several weeks. This has led Autumn to believe her state of pregnancy is less advanced than it actually is. Where Autumn was expecting a quick, one-day procedure becomes something far more invasive.
Hittman’s camera follows Autumn and Skylar as they travel across the city, alone and unprotected. Moving from the bleached-out tones of Pennsylvania to the garish neons of inner-city New York, both feel overwhelming; the claustrophobia of Autumn’s home life contrasting with the expansiveness of the city. A film with comparatively little dialogue, especially for the leads, Never Rarely Sometimes Always uses space to illustrate the contradiction within Autumn’s emotional state. Travelling away from her home town brings no relief; the anonymity of New York feels just as oppressive. A journey – normally used as the impetus for the hero to discover more about themselves – is here the obstacle. There is no self-discovery here: Autumn doesn’t need to learn anything.
Along with the stark realities of the abortion procedure, Never Rarely Sometimes Always examines the level of care meted out as Autumn makes her way through the system. From being shown an anti-abortion video as part of her appointment in Pennsylvania; we move to New York, where the service becomes, yes more officious, but Autumn is treated with kindness and civility for the first time. In the Manhattan clinic, the austere lines and unfamiliar, masked faces are tempered by Autumn’s pre-abortion counsellor attending the operation, holding the teenager’s hand as the anaesthetic takes hold. The enormity of the experience hits us, as it does for Autumn, in waves. Retreating into silence for a large part of the film, Flanigan’s ability to convey a sense of suffocation is astounding. Her desperation – for the ordeal to be over – is heartbreaking.
The role of men play in Never Rarely Sometimes Always becomes more interesting as the film unfolds. We move from Autumn’s father, who is more pleased with the docile family pet than his daughter, to dangerous encounters on the New York subway and the revelation, gently pulled from Autumn by the clinic counsellor, that her relationship with her ex-boyfriend has been an abusive one. The counsellor asks her a series of questions – the answer to which are the ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ of the film’s title. Autumn’s answers build a picture of someone who has become acquainted with the darker side of relationships from an early age.
Hittman shows us a pattern of behaviour that is not only pervasive within Autumn and Skylar’s immediate experience of being teenage girls – an assumption of their naivety and availability that unsurprisingly leads them to see their environment as hostile – but the film makes it clear that this is a problem for women, full stop. Skylar and Autumn are, even at their place of work, having to be on their guard. When Skylar makes an innocent remark about a customer buying in supplies for a party, the customer takes this as a sign of interest. He persists in trying to find out when she finishes work, long after Skylar has shut her part of the conversation down. The script, written by Hittman, is full of careful observations that ring true for women’s experiences, regardless of age. A woman’s time, notes Hittman, is not of value. It is always dispensable.
As Autumn makes her return journey home, there is a sense that the wider political point has been made. The policing of women’s bodies, from sexual availability to medical intervention, is not only pervasive, it continues to narrow its focus. Hittman’s film – politically engaged and unapologetically so – is not only a beautifully-crafted story, but a scathing examination of healthcare provision in a first world country. It is Hittman’s intent that the film should make us angry at everything Autumn has to go through, and it thoroughly succeeds in this remit. A work of real integrity and compassion, Never Rarely Sometimes Always delivers bold and fearless film-making at its very best.